Hunter gatherer child rearing

Well, yes:

I find myself thinking a lot about the New Guinea people with whom I have been working for the last 49 years, and about the comments of Westerners who have lived for years in hunter-gatherer societies and watched children grow up there. Other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-­confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children. We see that people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplied by outsiders, such as television, videogames, and books. We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children. These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children, but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly ­telling them what to do. The adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren’t an issue for hunter-gatherer children. The Westerners who have lived with hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies speculate that these admirable qualities develop because of the way in which their children are brought up: namely, with constant security and stimulation, as a result of the long nursing period, sleeping near parents for ­several years, far more social models available to children through ­allo-parenting, far more social stimulation through constant physical contact and proximity of caretakers, instant caretaker responses to a child’s crying, and the minimal amount of physical punishment.

Maybe this is the way to raise children if you want a society that hasn\’t even invented agriculture yet.

27 comments on “Hunter gatherer child rearing

  1. Minimal physical punishment of children in a hunter-gatherer society?! Well yes, when life itself is punishing I guess dishing out beatings is superfluous, especially if your kid has died on the hunt.

  2. Oh, can’t fault the article at all. We should start to implement the hunter gathers lifestyle immediately. For Londoners, s’pose that means deporting everyone with antecedents from north of Enfield say. Unless we treat them as a food resource, of course.

  3. I’m sure he’s got some kick-ass explanation of why these happy, caring, articulate and inquisitive souls have a murder rate hundreds of times higher than grubby 21st century South London?

    And why we should consider them as an exemplar?

  4. Maybe leaving the sea was a bad idea. The adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren’t an issue for fish.

  5. Not all primitive societies are alike. For example, the Plains Indians used to swaddle their babies until the age of three.

    I suppose having a three year old who can’t walk would prevent a lot of domestic accidents. (Sorry if I’ve given this idiot an idea.)

  6. As far as I can see the author earns his living as an anthropologist, ie a kind of scientist.
    A physicist who said that protons are great but electrons are terrible wouldn’t get any respect.
    Same with an anthropologist who makes value judgements about the societies he studies.

  7. Bart – “As far as I can see the author earns his living as an anthropologist, ie a kind of scientist.”

    Ha! Not met a lot of anthropologists have you? If you do, and you ask one the time, double check.

    “A physicist who said that protons are great but electrons are terrible wouldn’t get any respect.”

    How about one who say that Iodine 127 was fine but that Iodine 131 was bad?

    “Same with an anthropologist who makes value judgements about the societies he studies.”

    You are probably right but should you be? There is Colin Turnbull’s infamous Mountain People which I would not recommend to anyone without a strong stomach. But perhaps he shouldn’t get any respect. The book clearly upset a lot of people in the profession. But I did like Roger Edgerton’s Sick Societies. How is anyone supposed to react to, say, FGM? Or slavery? Or rape as a punishment?

  8. Same with an anthropologist who makes value judgements about the societies he studies.

    I think you’re muddling up the pure and the applied sides. In pure science, of course, value judgements have no role. But in applied science, they’re essential.

  9. “The adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers”

    Sort of off topic but doncha think making all socially inadequate teenagers drop MDMA and go to a whorehouse once a week do more to stop these crazy massacres than gun control? These kids clearly need to get laid

  10. So are we all agreed that large-scale cultures cannot be altered because they are, well . . . superior?

    That very superiority may explain why so many children raised in large-scale, Western cultures belittle or even cause physical harm to one another and their own family, have a hard time learning to deal with different ideas and ways of living, and grow to insecure adulthood while continuing to refine these traits learned in childhood.

  11. John, firstly, aren’t you adopting an absurdly linear view for comparing cultures? Cultures are massively complex things, surely it’s entirely possible to believe that culture A is superior to cultures B, C, D and E in some aspects, culture B is superior to A, C, D and E in others, culture C is superior to A, B, D and E in others and etc.

    Secondly, you claim that large-scale cultures can’t be altered. How do you therefore explain the second-wave feminism, leading to a female PM of the UK, the peace process in Northern Ireland, the rise of the Internet, and the massive change in normal attitudes to GBLT?

    I am afraid that you have a lot of work to do before you can get me to agree with your initial statement.

  12. “I am afraid that you have a lot of work to do before you can get me to agree with your initial statement.”

    So far, you bear out my observation.

  13. “That very superiority may explain why so many children raised in large-scale, Western cultures belittle or even cause physical harm to one another and their own family, have a hard time learning to deal with different ideas and ways of living, and grow to insecure adulthood while continuing to refine these traits learned in childhood.”

    For your statement to be true you’ll need to explain why the rates of inter-personal violence and murder are astronomically higher in hunter-gatherer societies compared to “large-scale, Western cultures”.

    The evidence says exactly the opposite of the claim you make.

  14. “The evidence says . . . ”

    . . . that so many children raised in large-scale, Western cultures belittle or even cause physical harm to one another and their own family, have a hard time learning to deal with different ideas and ways of living, and grow to insecure adulthood while continuing to refine these traits learned in childhood.

    I thought I said that already.

  15. Pardon me. Have I mis-read the point you were making?

    I thought you were saying that the children of “large-scale, Western cultures” were much worse off than the children of hunter-gatherers. And became “insecure” adults because of the “traits learned in childhood”.

    Were you saying the opposite?

  16. John Fembup, having read the thread I don’t think your point is at all clear. Are you saying, in response to the observation that the rates of murder and violence in these societies is much higher than in contemporary western society, that western children do or do not behave in a significantly violent way (physical and mental) towards all and sundry ? If so it does seem to be a deliberate refusal to accept that the opposite is true, for all their supposedly wonderful upbringing, the hunter gatherer society of adults is significantly more violent than ours.

    I also wonder about the “minimal physical punishment” part, although it may be true for hunter gatherer societies. It seems to be certainly not true for more settled small scale societies despite the pieties of cultural relativist thought that would have it so. In such societies punishments can be severe.

  17. In contrast to most, I didn’t think Diamond’s article was at all bad. It was genuinely thought provoking and more tentative in its conclusions than the comments so far give it credit for. Possibly I’ve been favourably influenced by reading one of his books (‘Guns, Germs and Steel’) and some of his articles. He does make it perfectly clear that the New Guineau tribes he knows best have an extremely violent society in which blood feuds are common. In fact, his work is the major route by which I came to know this fact. Without wishing to emulate their warlike nature, it is nonethless possible to find other aspects of their culture admirable – it has frequently been observed even among civilized peoples that the individuals produced by warrior societies or castes can have fine qualities alongside a touchy sense of honour.

    Bloke in France, Diamond does discuss the custom of swaddling and cradle boards in page 2 of this very article. Perhaps you missed it ;-)

    Tracy W, great comment at 5.00pm.

  18. Natalie Solent – “It was genuinely thought provoking and more tentative in its conclusions than the comments so far give it credit for.”

    How was it thought provoking? That whole “Babies cry less among African tribesmen” schtick is old news. Many many people have made similar claims. What does he add to the mix?

    “He does make it perfectly clear that the New Guineau tribes he knows best have an extremely violent society in which blood feuds are common.”

    With AK-47s these days. Why doesn’t he say so in the article? Given he knows it, how can he miss the fact that it makes his claims look silly?

    “Without wishing to emulate their warlike nature, it is nonethless possible to find other aspects of their culture admirable”

    Sure but high levels of violence tend to suggest that child rearing practices are a problem not a solution.

    The fact is most of these societies – as nice as their poetry and wood carvings may be – are failed societies. They should be copying us. They all want to copy us. We should not be copying them.

  19. John Fembup:
    “So far, you bear out my observation.”

    So I disagreed with you, and as far as you’re concerned, this supports your assertion that everyone agrees with you?

    Out of curiousity, what sort of culture did you grow up in? A hunter-gatherer one, a large-scale Western culture, or another sort?

    For the record, I continue to disagree with you, as you have not offered any response to my criticisms of your initial assertion.

  20. The main problem with this piece is that New Guineans aren’t hunter gatherers. Yes, they do some hunting and gathering, but they are also subsistence farmers, this providing most of their food supply, and yes, as subsistence farmers they do agriculture and generally, except for trade purposes, are not nomadic as are many hunters and gatherers. So the article is complete tosh. Who wrote this stuff? Oh, Jared Diamond – nuff said.

  21. Blame Jean Jaques Rousseau for this bit of wilfully blind beat western self up bit of romanticism. The kids have a great time in the village until they have to kill or be killed by the kids in the next village. Diamond feels a wave of universal brotherhood with the New Guineans that they certainly don’t feel for their neighbours.

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